ON the beat: Iceland comes to Wanaka for the Festival of Colour

Priya Sami of The Sami Sisters channels Björk at the Festival of Colour. PHOTO: Ray Tiddy Photography.

Anna Coddington channels Björk at the Festival of Colour. PHOTO: Ray Tiddy Photography.

Last night, audiences at Wanaka’s biannual Festival of Colour were metaphysically transported to Iceland by Blackbird Ensemble’s Björk – All Is Full of Love show and then the phenomenal JFDR.

Designed by composer and multi-instrumentalist Claire Cowan, All Is Full of Love is a homage to the inimitable Icelandic pop artist Björk. Opening the songbook of the world’s most well-known Icelander (beloved for her outfits and outbursts as much as her musical opus) is an ambitious task. But the show tackles this challenge most successfully when staying true to the mana of Björk’s music, while making it their own: Singer-songwriter Anna Coddington captured the dramatic romance, swirling heights and complex depths of Hyperballad and Wanderlust. Psychedelic soulman Mara TK brought an element of gentle restraint to Jóga, then later wove te reo into a haunting rendition of Stonemilker. Dream-pop artist Priya Sami had attendees joining in on percussion with their keys in Hidden Place and  Björk’s distinctive ooo OOO ooo’s and glitchy dancing mannerisms dialled.

The 1.5 hour long journey into the “emotional landscapes” of Björk’s work, drawn from the tundra and expanse of Iceland and her poetic philosophy, is made ethereal through all the senses. The Lake Wanaka Centre smelt a little like strawberries, thanks to the haze machine. Fairylights festooned on the orchestra’s bodies, glinting make-up, Mara TK barefoot and in piupiu, Priya in bunny-ears and a ball-dress, and Anna in a goddess gown gave a playful cohesion, the kind of delightful dreamscape Björk is celebrated for creating. Bring in an opening-and-closing parasol, strings, brass, woodwind, percussion, keys and a typewriter and the sense of other-worldliness is complete. As Mara TK explained during a storytelling interlude, Ōanaka is just down the road from Te Ao Mārama, which means place of light.  That could also be a name for the other space All Is Full Of Love transported the audience to last night.

Icelandic indi-folk songbird JFDR in Aotearoa for the first time. PHOTO: Ray Tiddy Photography.Icelandic indi-folk songbird JFDR in Aotearoa for the first time. PHOTO: Ray Tiddy Photography.

Serving as a wonderful companion piece to All Is Full Of Love was its successor, JFDR – the solo performance by 24 year old Jófríður Ákadóttir, also from Björk’s hometown of Rekjavik, Iceland. Held in the Crystal Palace, JFDR’s alchemy of folk and electronica is a one-woman masterpiece that captured the hearts and minds of listeners lucky enough to witness Ákadóttir’s South Pacific debut. Where All Is Full Of Love could be described as being about light and constellations of sound, JFDR hinged around romantic melancholia. From a sweet idyll composed when she was just 14, through to a recent piece inspired by Sakura – cherry blossom season in Japan, each song was a statement; a portal into a word of longing and loss, of journeying and returning. Exploring ideas about the beauty in sadness, the transitory nature of life, the vastness and silences of the Icelandic landscape, JFDR cast a spell that captivated concertgoers throughout her set.

Punctuating each foray into loop-pedalled soundscape were Ákadóttir’s soulful spoken word intros. Delivered in endearing deadpan, she explained the (often painful) process behind each song. This ranged from the “sad and inevitable” feeling of oncoming autumn, the mindchatter of repeated thoughts driving her towards the edge of sanity: “before I learnt about meditation or anything”, to ways of coping with loss: “One of the things about sadness that we can do is see the beauty in it.”

Throughout the set, a sense of the sparsely populated Scandinavian country pervades. In Ákadóttir’s voice we hear Iceland’s long history of storytelling, the Sagas, the expanses of tundra, the wilderness, the darkness and loneliness. As a prelude to one song, she talks about how the return to her homeland is always a peaceful one. Sitting on the airport bus, with “the ocean on one side and a big empty field of moss and larva on the other side”, she feels a stillness and connection: “The landscape in Iceland says nothing. It welcomes you in its silence.”

Iceland – so far from Aotearoa – just got 17, 186km closer. Last night at the Festival of Colour, thanks to Blackbird Ensemble and JFDR, we were taken there.

JFDR: redefining the phrase "24 and so much more". PHOTO: Ray Tiddy Photography.

JFDR: redefining the phrase “24 and so much more”. PHOTO: Ray Tiddy Photography.

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